The Buddha gives the bhikkhus a comprehensive course on his system through the lens of seeing the lives of the previous seven Buddhas. Like other suttas, this one reveals itself in a completely different light when unabridged.
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Index to available translations: DN 14
It is essential to understand the repetitions as vital tools in conditioning the mind to reception of ideas which will completely change an individual's perception of the world.
It is just at that point where the reader finds it unbearable to read what he has already read twice or three times before that the listener is brought into another dimension.
I suggest that that other dimension is the attainment of the jhaanas. A point where the individual's ego relaxes his grip on his normal reality and can accept new possibilities.
This experience can only be duplicated in the reader if he forces himself to relax and imagines himself in the place of the listener.
This opportunity is completely lost with abridgment and with that loss also is lost the opportunity to accept as real experience what is in the ordinary world acceptable only as 'childish myth' or, as Rhys Davids would have it the root of the weed which would eventually overwhelm the original teaching and bring it down.
But this sutta contains in fact a complete course in the doctrine from a version of the gradual course to the four truths to a very enlightening exposition of the Paticca Samuppada.
The knee-jerk reaction of the critical reader will immediately dismiss as absurd myth the idea that there were, if there even were, seven previous Buddhas who all experienced birth, renunciation of the world, awakening and the events leading to the teaching of the Dhamma in virtually identical ways. But with even casual observation one will note in one's own life that there are thousands of episodes which repeat themselves in identical ways. People repeat the same stories over and over. Not only old people but everyone. I have seen myself in situations where the circumstances and dialogue were identical with those of a few years previous. Read a history of China, The History of the Fall of the Roman Empire, The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich, the story of Napoleon. History is an absurd story of nearly identically repeating episodes. Truly 'a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.'
It is in the nature of the world to repeat itself. Repetition until mutation is the first operating principle of our DNA. Why should we think that the world at large operates differently? That there is in this world an expansion into virtually every permutation of every possibility is visible if you look. That there are as a result heavons and hells is the predictable natural result which is denied only by the narrow 'scientific, rational' mind that cannot see it's nose in front of it's face.
That this evolution of possibilities also contains a principle of perfection in what we call an Awakened being is not that difficult to accept. That this principle evolves upward in relatively similar ways is also reasonable.
That one does not 'see' this reflects only on one's own taming, training and education.
At least, the truly 'rational' individual should allow for the possibility.
Relax, someone who has seen it for themselves is speaking to you in this sutta. Listen with an unbiased ear and you may 'see.'
This leads to the question of the term to be used for this phenomena of seeing the past lives of others.
It cannot properly be 'recollection' or 'memory' as those are terms indicating the recollection of experiences personally witnessed at the time. What we have here is the seeing of events that were not personally witnessed.
The Pali is: 'suppa.tividdhattaa' SU = well; PA.TI = reflect; VIDDHA = having had penetrating knowledge (intuited);
what is 'penetrated' or 'intuited' is dhamma-dhaatuyaa; not, I suggest 'a principle of the truth' or 'Dhamma,' but data or information concerning the nature of things in general - What I am suggesting above: that with an open mind one sees the repetititve nature of the things in the world and so seeing, and not obstructing such a view by dismissal as 'myth', one is able to see and differentiate between what to the ordinary 'seer' looks like one fuzzy event, the overlaping of multiple events.
We can see also, the reverse. That say, for example, the history of Europe as one simple story repeating itself over and over. After a brief experiment in good government, psychopathic brute or psychopathic benevolant dictator or inbred idiot child rises up through the ranks of the army or inherits rule, takes control of the government, kills his enemies or not, takes many wives or not, has children or not, gives laws that make sense or not, indulges in cruelty, persecution of some enemy, conquest of other nations, indulgence of the senses or lives an ascetic life, kills his children and friends for conspiring against his life, is betrayed by his children and friends, is assassinated or exiled in luxory.
Once or twice in a thousand years there is a good ruler.
Once or twice in a thousand years an experiment in good govenment.
Hitler and Napoleon are two sides of the same coin. When the good ruler dies his legacy is lost. When the initial excitement of a new good government wears off and becomes ordinary some psychopathic brute or some psychopathic benevolant dictator ... Rince and repeat.
Why should the story of Awakening be any different?
That is in terms of it's repetitive nature?
A cosmic principle of Awakening in juxtaposition to the cosmic principle of Blindness.
Rhys Davids: 'through clear discernment of a principle of the truth ... that he is able to remember;'
Walshe: 'understands ... by his own penetration of the principles of Dhamma.'
In this regard also the reader, when Rhys Davids (and following him, Walshe) speaks of the 'rule', what is being translated is 'the Dhamma', which should be heard in this case as 'the form' or 'the pattern' or at least 'the general rule.'
Rhys Davids ends this sutta with a reading I believe is mistaken. In this case the Buddha has just gone to visit the Aviha heaven where groups of devas there approach and announce to him the details of the lives of the seven Buddhas including Gotama, (each group having been the disciples of the Buddha about whom they speak).
The Pali and Rhys Davids both abridge giving the details for the first Buddha (Vipassi) and the last (Gotama) indicating the rest with "pe".
Then Rhys Davids has Gotama visiting the Atappa, Sudassa, Sudassi and Akinittha heavens successively where in each case the gods deliver speeches similar to the ones delivered in the Aviha realm.
But my reading of the Pali is that the gods of each of the higher realms approach Gotama and join the others in the Aviha realm.
I read for the last case, for example:
"Then the Akanittha gods approach the Aviha gods and the Attapa gods and the Sudassa gods and the Sudassi gods and ... ."
Rhys Davids has this as: "Then on, including thus the Aviha and Cool and Fair gods"
In the translation proper I have expanded the abridgment of Rhys Davids translation according to his understanding, but I have footnoted the alternate reading in full using his terminology. The significance of the difference is pedagogical: It makes much better sense that each succeeding higher set of gods state their knowledge in front of the younger group.